The carrot and the drumstick
The cream of Hollywood will descend on Los Angeles for the 87th Academy Awards this Sunday. The nominees will have experienced vastly different journeys to this point. They will have learned their craft differently, practised differently – and they will have had different relationships with the people that helped them fulfill their potential. Some will have been encouraged and had their talent gently nurtured, while others might have been pushed hard every day to realise their genius. But they will all be present this weekend, saluted by their peers as being at the absolute top of their game.
The Oscars tend to attract criticism when the nominees are announced, such is the subjectivity of film, but I personally enjoy watching the ceremony. The awards create debate and differences of opinion, and I get drawn into watching all the films nominated for “Best Picture”.
One of my favourites this year is Whiplash. It doesn't feature important historical figures like Martin Luther King in Selma and Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, or the deeply moving story of a living genius like The Theory of Everything. It doesn’t have American Sniper’s patriotism or the stunning visuals and craftsmanship of The Grand Budapest Hotel. But it does have an electric pace, a generous sprinkling of tension and stellar performances, combined with a plot that left me thinking about the film for days to come.
Cruel to be kind
The central theme of Whiplash is of unlocking potential and driving someone to be their absolute best – no matter the methods. The film tells the tale of aspiring drummer Andrew Neiman, who is mentally abused by band leader Terence Fletcher as the teacher attempts to push the pupil beyond his limits in order to become better than he thought possible.
I found the portrayal of Fletcher, played by JK Simmons (who’s touted as the favourite to win "Best Supporting Actor"), mesmerising. Fletcher’s belief in the purity of creativity and his conviction in the techniques he used really stuck with me. A lot of us have at some point in our lives had a mentor or a tutor who tried to get the best out of us through unconventional methods – in fact, Whiplash was based on the real-life experiences of director Damien Chazelle. But if that person pushed you to the point where you felt you would break physically and mentally, would you still be doing what you’re doing today?
Throughout the film, Fletcher mentally batters Neiman to draw out every last bit of talent he has. There's no praise, no pats on the back; every minuscule mistake is picked up on then thrown back at Neiman in a flurry of foul-mouthed tirades.
As Fletcher says: "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’."
Drowned in sound
Fletcher’s methods throughout the film have sparked debates about morality and the perceived “right way” to teach, motivate and nurture talent, but history has shown that hard-hitting and sometimes antagonistic methods can deliver results.
Perhaps the most infamous example of a leader that pushed for excellence was Apple cofounder and ex-CEO Steve Jobs. There’s an anecdote that involves Jobs hurling the first prototype iPod into a tank of water to illustrate that his design team could make it smaller – because air bubbles emanated from the device as it sank to the bottom. Sure enough, the first iPod was made smaller – and its release changed the way many of us consume music forever.
Top of the league
I’m a huge football fan and there are plenty of examples within the sport of coaches employing hardline methods in order to get the best out of their team, with surprisingly positive results. Brian Clough was a notoriously brash coach who took no nonsense. In an interview with the BBC, economics professor Stefan Szymanski analysed his management style:
"He was a very overbearing employer, incredibly paternalistic - like Stalin and just as frightening."
The outspoken coach was known for his exacting standards but his success on the pitch was unquestionable – he famously turned second division Nottingham Forest into first division champions and two-time European Cup winners. Clough may have been an intimidating figure and one that pushed his players hard, but his methods produced one of the most successful teams of the 1970s.
A more recent (and more brutal) example is German coach Felix Magath. Following a distinguished 14-year playing career, Magath entered football management and quickly gained a reputation for his fierce training techniques. Players were reported to have dubbed him “Saddam” after the war criminal of the same name, while the German press referred to him as “Quälix”, a portmanteau of his name and quälen, which is German for “torture”.
Magath appeared to earn his many nicknames. While manager of German team Wolfsburg, he made his players embark on a long run through the woods. While they were gone, Magath emptied most of their water bottles, claiming he wanted to foster teamwork by making players share limited resources. Bordering on torture, perhaps, but his tactics produced winners. Wolfsburg won the Bundesliga on Magath’s watch – the club’s first ever title.
Lights, camera… torture?
Whiplash portrays the ugly side of chasing excellence on screen – but what about behind the camera? There are numerous stories of famous directors employing questionable methods in order to create the perfect movie. Alfred Hitchcock threw birds at actress Tippi Hedren every day during filming to ensure the fear her character Melanie Daniels showed in The Birds was authentic as possible. But that pales in comparison to director Stanley Kubrick.
The filming of 1980 film The Shining was set to be a relatively rapid 17-week process. Instead it took a full year thanks to Kubrick’s exacting standards. He made leading lady Shelley Duvall record a single scene 127 times until it was perfect and Kubrick’s overall treatment of her reportedly made her hair begin to fall out. Kubrick’s tactics were certainly unsavoury, but The Shining became one of the most iconic films of all time.
At the heart of the shared ethos of people like Jobs, Clough and Kubrick is the notion that, no matter what, we can always do better. Fletcher says as much in Whiplash:
“I […] push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that it is an absolute necessity."
These men opted for the stick over the carrot and showed that we respond to it. But how much longevity is there in such tactics? Neiman became a proficient drummer in Whiplash, perhaps better than he ever thought possible. But he sacrificed a lot along the way. Jobs certainly made an impact in consumer electronics, but his obsession with flawlessness fractured many of his relationships – professionally and personally. And despite his past successes, Magath’s ruthless methods appeared to lose their impact during his recent management spell in England with Fulham, as the team was relegated from the Premier League amid rumours of a player revolt.
Ultimately, the desire for betterment rests with ourselves. We all need motivation to help us reach and surpass our goals, but personally, I’d take encouragement over aggression any day. Fletcher said there are no two words more harmful than “good job”, but I disagree. Timed right and used sincerely, there are few things more motivating than praise. Which is something JK Simmons and the rest of the Whiplash cast and crew could find out this weekend.
Darren has left The Frameworks.
- Academy Awards